Undercover Shopper: Putting New York’s Finest to the Test

Within the last six months, both Duane Reade and Sephora have opened dazzling new retail emporiums in the heart of Manhattan.

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Special Issue
Beauty Inc issue 11/11/2011

Within the last six months, both Duane Reade and Sephora have opened dazzling new retail emporiums in the heart of Manhattan. WWD visited each to see if the post-opening glow still sparkles brightly.

Seeing a store through the lens of consumer, as opposed to reporter, is always a welcome task. Especially since I was assigned to visit two of the hottest new beauty spots to open in Manhattan over the past six months: Sephora Meatpacking District and Duane Reade at 40 Wall Street. Both represent new takes for their existing chains, each taking pains to break the mold of traditional retailing with services, high-tech displays and an enticing array of brands.

Like many of the high-end shops in the Meatpacking District, the sleek, modern design of the new Sephora store serves as a sharp juxtaposition to the congestion and throngs of tourists that crowd this destination zone every day. With its light boxes illuminating high-resolution product pictures, dust-free displays and art installations, including a multicolored chan- delier, the store could be easily mistaken for a gallery.

Perhaps most notable about this 5,000-square-foot location is the separation of beauty categories into their own areas. There’s a room dedicated solely to fragrance, one for skin and hair care and one for makeup. Sephora-branded items are in the back, underneath plasma screens featuring mesmerizing, bouncing and beaming computer graphics.


Making shopping easy is the modus operandi here. To that end, a “Global Product” display highlights different items from all over the world; “Hot Now” displays feature trendy items under glass, and a nail bar features polish bottles alongside lacquered press-ons, making color choice easy. A consumer would be hard-pressed not to self-navigate this shop, thanks to all of the helpful signage calling out product type and active ingredients, with items in glass display boxes just in case one couldn’t pluck it off the shelf herself.
This easy-to-navigate approach made shopping pleasant, organized and foolproof. However, I will say it’s hard to stay in one section of the store, because curiosity beckoned me to explore every inch of the space before committing to just one category.

It would be interesting to know whether the store’s designers envisioned making this Sephora seem as museumlike as it appears, especially since upon entry there is a large sculpture by New York City artist E.V. Day. Every time I visited the store (I went three times), a customer was asking about the art. And each time an employee responded with an encyclopedic knowledge of the piece in question.


Ultimately, I was drawn to two sections. The first was the fragrance room, not because I am a fragrance person (I am not) but because of the wall-mounted Fragrance Finder, a program on an LED screen that asked me my favorite hobbies and scents, and voilà, a list of fragrances was suggested (Justin Bieber Someday?!). A helpful salesperson dutifully delivered me strips of the suggested scents, and even offered stand-ins for those that were suggested but not in stock.

The Global products display also caught my attention, especially the different skin care items, namely the Dr. Jart+ Premium BB Beauty Balm with SPF 45. I had recently heard about BB Cream, a bestseller in Korea, and was eager for the chance to try it.

Perhaps the only aspect I’m on the fence about is its checkout system. See, there are no registers, nor an official checkout area. Instead, staff members are armed with a handheld wand that scans and totals each purchase. The wand can accommodate a credit card swipe, and customers sign with their finger. I have no idea what happens in the case of cash purchases. I stood around for a minute or two, looking for a checkout to pay for the Beauty Balm, before I asked an employee where it was, and he said he could check me out right where I was standing. I asked him how customers know that this technology is available, and he said staff usually asks customers before someone has to hunt around. Not the case with me, but such a minor flaw will not stop me from coming back, ready to know how to pay.

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